In my work as a personal trainer and holistic nutritionist, I find that a vast majority of people have very poor body image and quite simply, feel crazy around food.
I get it; as someone with a history of disordered eating, it has taken me years to navigate through all of the diet dogma, ‘fitspo’ and media bullshit. Thankfully, my own struggles have allowed me to discover a few actionable steps that I use to help my clients not only feel amazing in their bodies physically, but mentally as well. Here are 5 steps to improving your relationship with food, exercise and body image that you can start today!
1. Stop exercising
Yes, you read that right. Probably didn’t expect to hear that from someone who has made a living in the fitness industry, right? Surprisingly, most people I work with who have weight loss or health goals are working out too much. Our bodies absolutely need movement; walking, yoga, dancing, and playing are all great examples of this. However; scheduling 2-a-day workouts inside a gym, on a human hamster wheel, or at your Crossfit box may be harming you more than helping you. According to Barry Braun, Ph.D, “physical activity may raise concentrations of longer-term appetite stimulating hormones like insulin and leptin in women” [Effects of exercise on energy-regulating hormones and appetite in men and women, Braun, 2007]. This may explain the feelings of extreme hunger not only immediately after an intense workout, but for the following 24 hours. Braun continues, “women are wired to defend their body weight to preserve energy for pregnancy.” This isn’t to say that women are made solely for the purpose of becoming pregnant; however it does give an excellent reasoning as to why working out too much can actually backfire, specifically for women.
Tip: For 1 month, aim for movement daily in a way that brings you joy. Ask yourself the following question, “If I were stranded on a deserted island, would I still choose this type of movement?” This will identify whether your workouts are serving an internal purpose (joy! health!) or external purpose (aesthetics! gains!)
2. Sleep more
As a society today we are under slept and overworked. Sleep is often not a priority when we feel the need to wake up before the sun rises, simply to get everything completed for the day. Besides feeling tired, a lack of sleep can cause our blood sugar and adrenal hormones to become out of balance and interfere with our hunger and satiety cues. One night of too little sleep can lead to increased risk of insulin resistance and increased fat storage due to the disregulation of leptin and ghrelin; the hormones responsible for increasing hunger and making it harder to feel satisfied after meals. Too little sleep also increases cortisol levels (leading to catabolism of muscles) and inflammatory markers in the bloodstream, leading to things like arthritis, migraines, and digestive distress.
Tip: Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day (even weekends!) for 1 month. Aim for at least 7-8 quality hours a night. Try not to rely on stimulants such as coffee and pre-workout supplements; these will further exacerbate the stress put on your blood sugar/ adrenal hormones and lead to lowered satiety after meals and increased cravings for sugar and stimulants.
3. Find pleasure
We are often so busy that we rarely take the time to really enjoy not only our food, but every other aspect of life that is meant to elicit a pleasurable response. When was the last time you were completely mindful about the meal you were eating, savoring every bite? Or watched the sunset without simultaneously checking your Instagram feed? Being mindfully present in every situation and experiencing pleasure allows us to determine what we are truly feeling, for example, “am I satisfied? tired? hungry? fulfilled?” which enables us to address the real issue, rather than turning to food or exercise as an escape.
Tip: Do one pleasurable thing each day. Whether that is sleeping 5 minutes longer, getting a massage, or taking a bath. Reassess your feelings about your relationship with food and body image after 1 month.
4. Make changes from a place of love, not shame
A common misconception that I see is that positive changes will occur if we are more strict with ourselves. Hating your body and forcing it through grueling workouts and minimal calories may work temporarily, but once your body adapts to the demands you have placed on it, you will be right back to where you started. How many diets have you successfully completed, only to find yourself feeling guilty and shameful once you go back to ‘normal’ food? How many times have you reached your ‘goal weight’ but still found things to criticize while looking in the mirror?
Establishing change from a place of shame, hatred, or fear will never work in the long run. We must learn to make positive changes because we love ourselves; not to punish ourselves into becoming something or someone that we love.
Tip: Give yourself one positive affirmation every single day for the next month. Start simply with filling in the blank with the adjective of your choosing: “I am _____” (worthy, exciting, beautiful, brilliant, strong, etc!). At first this will probably seem awkward and uncomfortable but stick it out and I promise you will notice an improvement in your overall mindset and attitude towards your body and mindset around food.
5. Stop body shaming
If you are not at the place (yet!) where you can say positive things about yourself, start by complimenting others. Think of a genuine compliment that you love about your best friend, mom, boyfriend, etc. and tell them.
On the other hand, make it a rule to stop body-shaming others. This can be so easy to get sucked into, especially in the media. With constant headlines about which celebrity gained or lost the most baby weight, the topic is bound to rear it’s ugly head at some point. Often times, our harsh criticism of other people’s bodies is reflective of how we feel about ourselves. I have never met a confident, body-positive person who went around picking apart anyone else’s appearance.
Tip: Compliment 1 other person each day, and make it a point NOT to participate in any body shaming for the next month.
You may be thinking that none of these tips has anything to do with food, and you're right. Nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to optimal health, and our food choices are often influenced by different variables on a day to day basis. I believe that when we first address things like mindset and self-care, it is easier to make choices around food that are going to be the most nourishing and sustainable.
Try out these 5 steps for the next month and watch the lasting changes you really desire start to happen. Send me an email and let me know how your mindset around food, exercise and body image has improved!